"strange that death should sing"
by Peter Carrington for remotegoat on 21/01/12

There is always a question of judgement when interpreting Shakespeare. A thousand balancing scales must be set between comedy, tragedy, reverence and relevance. King John is the paradigm of such judgement and this is obvious from each aspect of this production.

A dim smoke filled hall where chanting echoes is the stage for a plot that swiftly slithers back and forth with narrative and directive flourishes. John (Nicholas Osmund) clings to his kingdom while Philip of France (an emotive Damian Quinn) seeks to put a young relative of John's onto the English throne. Both powers move at the behest of strong women; Elanor of Aquitaine (the regal Maggie Daniels) and Constance (Samantha Lawson). The tale is set up quickly and moves along at a swift pace, encompassing an epic tale of kingdoms and wars with numerous heartfelt sub-plots. There are familiar Shakespeare motifs, such as honour versus politics, love versus duty, prejudice, power, tragic and comedic misunderstanding and the heavy weight of a crown.

The casting is very well judged. Rikki Lawton brings both energy and poignancy to Philip, bastard son of Richard the lionheart; desperate to climb socially yet with a great national pride. His fervent delivery must infect the cast as it does the audience. Nicholas Osmund cuts a comedic and tragic figure as John; sometimes scampering with glee but also capable of being regal, conveying perhaps being the lesser relative of great men and women. Maggie Daniels as his mother, Queen Elanor of Aquitaine embodies all of the poise and power of that family. On the other side of the channel there are excellent foils to them both. Damian Quinn as King Philip of France is a reflection of John but with greater statesmanship. Samantha Lawson's Constance verbally flagellates herself in her speeches, her grief 'filling up the room'; the opposite to Eleanor's confident presence. Supporting performances such as John Last as Hubert, conveying a gruff but good man and Leonard Sillevis as Lord Falconbridge are understated but strong. The young and innocent are but pitiable pawns in this game as played Daisy May and Albert De Jongh. All the cast drive for gravitas, clarity and representation without exception which makes each line feel very precise in delivery.

The set is minimal, which allows the text to fill the room and tell the tale, aided by clarity of direction. The costumes are a master class in suggestion; long military coats, splattered with mud over breastplates imply both medieval and cold war times. Colour and heraldry show state and allegiance but in an understated way so as not to overshadow nor cause confusion over the action. The music and sound similarly add to the atmosphere in a range of poignant or comedic ways without detracting from the text. Lighting is appropriate, getting darker and moodier as dark times loom. Each aspect is designed to bring forth the text and never overshadow it.

King John is staged here as a black comedy; smiling, singing and dancing with the weighty subjects. Some may find this jarring if not to their tastes but considering the content, I feel this production brings the text and the meanings within to the forefront with consideration and precision.

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